Commentary by Russ Jackson
Here we go again, this time into the new year 2019. Amtrak is still here and the long distance trains are still running, but the uncertainty of what might happen in this new year remains of concern to not only readers of this report but to all who have been riders of Amtrak’s “national system” and want to continue to do so. I can’t predict what will happen, but the fact that so many continue riding the trains must be taken into account by the strange Amtrak administration now “in charge.” The question has to be asked, “up there do they know what they are doing?” Many would say No, but at least there have not yet been any big changes or eliminations going into the new year; just one temporary change to the Sunset Limited departure from Los Angeles Union Station for the eastbound train 2. From mid-January to mid-March its departure time will be at 7:26 PM instead of 10 PM. BUT, train 2 will only do so on Wednesdays and Fridays; the Sunday departures during that period are canceled. The reason for that change brought speculation, but educated guesses included a rail construction project by the Union Pacific on the Sunset Route, or possibly building the new highway over-crossing of the tracks at the Maricopa, Arizona station. The reason is the former, a massive needed track work window east of Alpine, Texas, and rumors are circulating that the UP wanted all three round trips canceled for those two months. Of course this schedule change temporarily breaks the connection to the Sunset Limited from the Coast Starlight in Los Angeles. But, it also puts the two train 2s into San Antonio earlier, where making the car shuffle to the Texas Eagle on time has been a continuing problem, with the Sunset Limited frequently arriving two or more hours late due to “freight interference,” which delays the 7 AM departure of the Texas Eagle and puts it at the mercy of the UP and BNSF as it travels north to Fort Worth and beyond. If this track work project helps relieve that situation it will help in the long run. Anyway, so much for an opening statement. Now let’s hear the good news and maybe a few negatives from two friends who traveled on Western long distance trains in December, 2018 and a final quote from a former Amtrak CEO.
A Coast Starlight Trip Report. Dana Hawkes, of San Marcos, CA, rode the Starlight from Seattle all the way to Los Angeles Union station after Christmas, riding in the Accessible bedroom in the Superliner Sleeping Car lower level. His departure from the Seattle station was on time, and the train “is completely full. Service is friendly and efficient. Just had lunch and the food and service were excellent as well. I’m sorry they removed the Parlour Car, it was a great addition.” He was pleased that the route south “still went along Puget Sound and under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.” The next morning came the report that he had a great night’s sleep but the arrival into Sacramento would be 2 1/2 hours late. Mr. Hawkes is a veteran Amtrak traveler, having been on over 30 trips. The reason for the delay was between Portland and Salem, Oregon, the train was tragically “held up by someone using it to commit suicide in front of a Union Pacific freight train” ahead of them. But, the Starlight ride was smooth and he, like so many Starlight riders, enjoyed the sunrise the next morning and the scenery throughout the day, although the lateness continued all the way to Los Angeles. “To be a little philosophical,” he writes, “my definition of train travel is it’s a journey. It does get you where you want to go but it allows you to enjoy the beauty of the scenery, the culture of the countryside, and the vitality of America that exists outside of the chatter and turmoil of the city. Some might think that so much enjoyment and travel is a luxury. No more luxury than a bike lane, or a hiking trail, or a local or national park. None of those are vital to Commerce in the United States, but they are vital to the experience of life in its fullness. I think a train falls into that category.” Oh, his train arrived in Los Angeles at 1 AM, but obviously the trip experience was worth it to this Amtrak customer.
A Trip Report on the Sunset Limited. John Blaubach from Santa Barbara, CA, took the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to San Antonio, Texas for Christmas, riding in Coach using Guest Reward points. He found “lots of padding in the schedule, and they arrived in San Antonio on time despite long delays along the way.” For meals he bought the “at your seat” dinner both ways, which was the “Salisbury Steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, 2 mini rolls, water and a large cookie for $12.” Eastbound the crew walked the cars to get the order, but Westbound he had to walk to the Diner to order at 5:00 then pick it up at 5:25. Why? Well, “the trains were sold out, sleepers were all booked (3 cars),” eastbound they never took lunch or dinner reservations from the coach passengers except the to go orders, and while the westbound was sold out, the diner served the last walkons, the only way for coach passengers to have participated. For breakfast eastbound he went to the diner at 7 AM after leaving Del Rio and tried the burrito special, for $6.50. It was “better than expected, but my tablemate (from Michigan) didn’t like his. For lunch westbound he joined many veteran riders and bought two burritos from the El Paso station burrito lady, still $2. Arrival back at Los Angeles was late, but it was a “perfect connection to his train to Santa Barbara,” as he had 15 minutes to walk down tunnel 10 and up 11, and did not have to “waste time walking to the waiting room to get my seat assignment and then retrace my steps!”
Hey, Amtrak, after reading these reports, why should there be ANY doubt about the viability of the “national network” of trains? The long distance trains in the West are important to many riders, who count on your providing the safest, cleanest, most reliable travel experience. As the previous Amtrak CEO, Joe Boardman, wrote in his recent Railway Age article, “Today, as well as for most of its existence, Amtrak has had both its supporters and detractors focused on numbers–numbers of passengers, dollars of investment, size of deficits, miles of rail service, and statistical comparisons with others. There is a passion here that drives interest, much like the passion of sports fans immersed in statistics. Amtrak is really about the value it brings to our nation, states, communities, employees and passengers–the forgotten stakeholders when one focuses solely on cold statistics.” Could the cause of preserving passenger rail over long distances be more perfectly stated than what we have published here? 2019 is going to be an important year, for the country and for Amtrak. Will there be a future for our travel opportunities by long distance trains in the West? I hope so, you hope so, and we all will be diligent in working to see that a philosophy of GROWTH eventually breaks through the fog at Amtrak’s highest levels and a year from now we will be celebrating the future, not the alternative. Readers, keep in touch, keep riding, and keep letting Amtrak know how important this service is to you.